Friday, February 13, 2009

Bushfire warning systems

According to media reports the Prime Minister has committed the Australian Government to implementing a bushfire warning system rapidly across Australia. A system using voice messages was trialled in Victoria and SMS messages are used in the Sydney CBD. However, in my view the use of cell broadcast to mobile phones would be the fastest and most reliable to implement. This technology is built into the mobile phone standards and can transmit a message to all phones in an area in a few seconds.

It should be noted that the proposed National Broadband Network also has implications for emergency communicators. It is likely the NBN, if implemented, will accelerate the trend away from use of the public switched telephone network. More people will be using VoIP and its reliability needs to be considered in an emergency. What level of standby power be required in the network and for consumer devices? As I noted in a talk to Turkey's earthquake warning centre in 2008, the Request for Proposals to Roll-out and Operate a National Broadband Network for Australia, asks about provision of battery backup of the equipment and mentions emergency calls, but this is priority 16 out of 18.

Unfortunately building an emergency warning system is not an easy task. The first problem is to have enough information to be able to issue timely warnings and the second to be able to transmit them. The Victorian Government successfully trialled a Community Information and Warning System in 2005. The system calls all phones in an area with a voice message and also makes a not of those phones which received and did not receive the message. There is a 118 page "The Report of the Trial and Evaluation" available from the Victorian Department of Justice (2006).

It should be noted that the NSW government installed an Emergency Warning and Intercommunication System (EWIS), but only for the Sydney CBD. The NSW Government could have chosen to install a less elaborate system covering the whole state at the same cost.

The Sydney CBD also as an opt in SMS emergency service for building managers. Unfortunately SMS systems have problems. In 2007 I discussed the use of SMS with the staff of Turkey's tsunami warning centre.
Executive Summary

The CIWS Trial has been the first opportunity in Victoria to comprehensively evaluate the responses and behaviour of communities to
a public emergency warning system which integrates innovative telecommunication and data transfer technology with the public warning procedures and GIS mapping operations of Victoria’s emergency services.

The findings of the evaluation concluded that for community warning systems such as the CIWS to be effective, the following elements were required:

• Telecommunication and geo-spatial technology needs to be seamlessly integrated within the operations of emergency service organisations and to be incorporated as a component of state and national emergency management arrangements.
• The emergency services’ knowledge of community engagement, culture and demographics and public safety principles needs to be included within their community warning communication procedures and decision making.
• The development and delivery of a public safety awareness campaign must enable individuals and communities to understand the purpose of community warning and information procedures and the means to access emergency and safety information.

This will reinforce the public safety messages advocated by Victoria’ emergency services.

The CIWS Trial – partnerships and process The Offi ce of the Emergency Services Commissioner (OESC), in partnership with Telstra, ABC Radio, DSE, Victoria’s emergency services and the Shires of Yarra Ranges and Northern Grampians and their respective communities, trialled and evaluated the effectiveness of innovative spatial and telecommunications technology.

The trial was designed to incorporate Victoria’s emergency management arrangements and to deliver timely public warning information simultaneously to large numbers of households and businesses.

This spatial and telecommunications technology became known and referred to as the Community Information and Warning System (CIWS).

The CIWS Trial and Evaluation project commenced in October 2004, with the establishment of the steering group and the development of the trial’s parameters and proof of concept technology. As the project gained momentum, the Victorian emergency services including the Country Fire Authority, Victoria State Emergency Service, Metropolitan Fire and
Emergency Services Board and the Department of Human Services were requested by the steering group to form a Data Transfer Sub-Group. This sub-group worked to enable the trial to set-up and test enhanced data transfer capability for downloading images and mapping. It was intended that this data could be transmitted between notional in-field Incident Controllers and an Emergency Operations Centre.

The trial and evaluation developed over the following six months with the project being officially launched in May 2005 and monthly ‘emergency’ telephone messages being delivered to the 664 participating residents of Mount Evelyn, Stawell and Halls Gap, from May through to September 2005.

The evaluation process continued throughout the trial, with all data collected by November 2005.

It is important to note that the CIWS Trial and Evaluation was completed prior to the Mount Lubra wildfi re which occurred in January 2006 and which directly threatened residents from both Halls Gap and Stawell.

CIWS Trial and Evaluation Goals

The key goals for this CIWS Trial and Evaluation were

• to confirm the knowledge about the effectiveness of public warning information technology and its links to public safety and
• to integrate the ABC Radio network as the trial’s major secondary information source in order to exercise Victoria’s ABC Radio and Emergency Services Memorandum of Understanding developed in 2005.

CIWS evaluation methodology

The research findings from the community components of the evaluation methodology, the semi-structured interviews with the emergency services and the observations of the trial provided a robust base of evidence for the design of a Program Logic Model and the conclusions drawn from the evaluation’s findings. The Program Logic Model has
been an innovative and major output of the project’s evaluation and was developed to map the application of the CIWS technology and to integrate this map with operational response decisions about risk communication and community behaviour.

The conclusions from the evaluation findings discuss public safety decisions and behaviour and the CIWS activation. The findings have identified a combination of elements which are likely to contribute to the effectiveness of a telecommunication system of public warning communication.

The influence of CIWS on public safety

The CIWS evaluation findings concluded that:
• When people have a level of planning and preparedness knowledge about emergency events, combined with a realistic perception of their risk and a multi-faceted communication network, then a telephone emergency warning message is more likely to trigger appropriate decisions and behaviours, the results of which are likely to increase their safety and confirm their self reliance to be prepared.
• If a telephone ‘warning’ message is only partially heard, its value for an informed and prepared community would still be high because it represented only one source of trusted information and planning within that community’s total approach to information and community safety preparedness.
• People with limited understanding and awareness of their emergency risk and community safety, and who had not considered preparation and planning for emergency events, were consequently more likely to be wholly dependent on a telephone emergency warning message to determine their subsequent responses and behaviours.
• Consequently, in these situations, rather than triggering increased self reliance and informed decision making, the telephone message is more likely to become a source of information which could increase their uncertainty, lack of preparedness and reduce their ability to contribute to having a shared responsibility of safety with the emergency service organisations.

The CIWS, IPND and community privacy

The CIWS Proof of Concept model was set up to enable development of the telephone and property database from IPND (Integrated Public Number Database) data. Currently however, the IPND licensing agreement on data security prohibits the implementation of this component and consequently Telstra was not permitted to use the IPND database for the trial. Instead the CIWS Trial sought the participating residents’ permission to use their telephone numbers and property addresses for the development of the CIWS Trial database.

The participating residents’ expectation about the protection of personal information by government and organisations was based on trust and agreed rules about how their personal information would beaccessed and used.

If the CIWS were to operate as a national or statewide system using the IPND rather than asking residents to opt-in to supply their names and addresses, then the development of such a system would require security and privacy protocols, the ability for emergency service agencies to identify
themselves as part of these protocols and the support of a public awareness and education program.

Incorporating the ABC Radio network as the CIWS secondary information source

The ABC Radio network was successfully used as the major secondary information source which participating residents were encouraged to access following delivery of the CIWS trial’s automated telephone messages. The progressive development of public emergency warning information systems and, in particular, the use of Victoria’s ABC Radio and
Emergency Services Memorandum of Understanding will continue to develop the predictability of a communication system which people will expect in order to access emergency information and to make decisions about their safety.

The CIWS and the communication needs
of marginalised communities

The analysis of the information gained from the consultation and workshops with both cultural and linguistically diverse communities (CALD) and hearing impaired people from a Vic Deaf social group provided the CIWS Trial and Evaluation with a set of provisional principles which could be incorporated into the future development and implementation of public warning communication systems.

• The delivery of automated telephone messaging to communities which include hearing impaired and CALD groups must provide for their ability to receive and understand the message communicated by the telephone call.
• The secondary information sources incorporated into a CIWS communication process need to be diverse in order to address the communication requirements of marginalised and special needs sectors of the community.
• The evaluation of the CIWS Trial established the importance of further consultation and research to confirm the communication and information needs of culturally and linguistically diverse communities and of people who have impaired hearing.

The CIWS as a combination of technology organisational and social factors

The CIWS evaluation findings and the conclusions have demonstrated the relationship between the CIWS technology and human factors. The Program Logic Model has highlighted the importance of emergency services’ decision-making processes to activate the CIWS in order to disseminate telephone messages to the public. The introduction of the Program Logic Model has, for the first time, identified the procedures, decisions and context necessary for the design and implementation of a technologically based and integrated public emergency information and warning system.

The evaluation’s conclusions clearly found that the effectiveness (perceptions of increased public safety) of public information and warning system design and delivery is linked to the incorporation of knowledge by emergency services personnel about a community’s culture and their level of risk awareness and preparedness. This knowledge needs to become an essential component within the organisational processes of public risk communication.

The CIWS Trial and Evaluation has made an important contribution to the importance of risk communication, public warning technology design and future decisions about the incorporation of such technology systems into state and national emergency management arrangements.

The rigorous implementation of the CIWS Trial and Evaluation can provide the emergency management sector with the confidence to continue developing integrated public warning systems which incorporate telecommunication technology, public safety and public risk communication procedures. ...

From: "The Report of the Trial and Evaluation", Victorian Department of Justice (2006).

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